Economics

For the Sake of Productivity, Put a Woman in Charge

One Japanese company sees female managers as the key to fixing the country's deadening corporate culture.

Don't be afraid to try it.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

If you’ve never tried a Japanese snack called Jagariko, I highly recommend it. When I visited the Tokyo offices of Japanese snackmaker Calbee Inc., I made sure to ask if I could have a free pack of my favorite snack. “Maybe,” the managers hedged.

I wasn’t at Calbee to talk about their potato sticks, but their corporate culture. Calbee is famous in Japan for a progressive, female-friendly workplace. Japan’s government has scaled back its ambitions to put more women in corporate management roles, but Calbee is pushing ahead full steam. The company has increased the share of female managers from 5.6 percent in 2010 to 22.1 percent in 2016, and is aiming for 30 percent by the end of the decade.

But Calbee managers explained to me that gender equality is only a small facet of the company’s attempts to transform the company’s management style. The real goal, they told me, was to shift from a culture that valued input of effort to one that rewarded results, efficiency and productivity. They asserted that female managers are actually more productive than men -- where men feel social pressure to stay at work even if nothing needs doing, the Calbee folks said, women feel pressure to finish their tasks quickly and efficiently so they can get home to spend more time with their kids. My interviewees therefore argued that work-life balance, gender equality, and results-oriented management are all just aspects of a unified whole.

A shift from long hours to efficient, goal-oriented work is exactly the right medicine for white-collar Japan. Almost alone among developed countries, Japan has actually seen its total factor productivity -- a measure of overall business efficiency -- fall rather than rise over the last four decades:

More Input for Less Output

Japan total factor productivity at constant prices*

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

* 2011 = 1

Though the country’s factories are top-notch, thanks to rapid adoption of automation and other technologies, its service sector lags badly:

Sad Services Story

Average productivity growth in wholesale, retail, accommodations and dining (1995-2014)

Source: Japan Productivity Center

One big reason is that service industries depend less on robots and more on human office workers. And there’s evidence that Japanese office culture has been badly broken for quite some time. Japanese workers put in famously long hours -- so much that death from overwork is a well-known concept. But many companies are still using antiquated technologies like fax machines and cassette-tape recorders.

Failure to care about upgrading ancient technology is a sign that many Japanese companies aren’t placing a high premium on the amount of work that actually gets done in their offices. Instead, punishingly long hours are probably a way that workers signal their loyalty to their bosses and employers. Signaling, as every economist knows, is a costly, even wasteful process. If Japanese companies trust their workers so little that they force them to sacrifice much of their personal life just to prove their commitment, that lack of trust is holding back the economy. It’s probably decreasing fertility too, since long hours at the office make it much harder to raise children.

That’s why results-oriented management, which might seem obvious and natural to an American, represents such a revolution in Japan. It calls into question the whole idea of what work means. For too many Japanese people, work is about input of effort -- an hour at the office is an hour of work. The idea that this is not actually work unless real economic value is created for the company will require Japanese managers and workers alike to change their whole personal value system.

It’s a needed change, and it will be a wrenching one. It will also probably require many Japanese people to find a new source of self-worth. The realization that wasted office time isn’t real work will probably challenge a lot of people’s view of themselves as hard workers -- they’ll have to learn how to pride themselves on getting things done, instead.

It’s also worth asking whether the U.S., too, could benefit from this sort of change. Americans put in a lot more work hours than Europeans, but it’s questionable how much of that extra effort translates into real productivity. If U.S. workers are wasting more office time on social media, it could mean that productivity gains from new technology are being frittered away on a low-grade form of pseudo-leisure. If you’re going to goof off on Twitter, why not do it from your living room? Cutting hours for white-collar U.S. workers like lawyers, engineers and finance traders might result in better work-life balance without a drop in productivity.

But for Japan, where the need for efficiency is most acute, Calbee remains a standout. Let's hope more companies copy its management style -- a bright spot of modernity in a hidebound, old-fashioned world.

As for my free pack of Jagariko, I never got it. As soon as I had asked all my questions, the woman manager I was interviewing bid me a friendly but brief farewell, opened up her laptop and started doing some real work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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